Academic journal article Connections : The Quarterly Journal

Xinjiang in China's Foreign Policy toward Central Asia

Academic journal article Connections : The Quarterly Journal

Xinjiang in China's Foreign Policy toward Central Asia

Article excerpt


The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the appearance of new players in the Central Asian region, the most important of which is China. In the span of some twenty years, China has become a major trade partner and investor in the region. Its trade with nations in the region has grown impressively, from almost nothing in 1991 to more than USD 30 billion in 2011, with China being the region's second-largest trading partner after Russia. According to the Premier of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, Wen Jiabao, Chinese direct investments in Central Asia by 2012 are estimated at USD 250 billion.1 China is extensively building oil and gas pipelines, developing a network of transportation links, "as well as expanding its diplomatic and cultural presence in the region."2

Scholars and experts on the region have devoted extensive attention to the question of what are the drivers of Chinese policies in Central Asia. There is a consensus among Western as well as Chinese and Central Asian researchers that the region is not the primary focus of China's foreign policy. China's relations with the United States is its most important bilateral relationship, and perhaps the primary focus of its foreign policy, along with relations with Japan and other nations in North East Asia, with concerns over stability on the Korean Peninsula taking second place. South East Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific region take third place in order of priority.3 However, one point that has been highlighted by most studies is that the aspiration to pacify the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang (officially the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region) constitutes the key factor that defines Chinese engagement with and presence in Central Asia.4 Thus, according to Sébastien Peyrouse, "If Chinese influence in Central Asia has evolved in the course of the two post-Soviet decades, China's key interests have not changed. The Central Asian zone has strategic value in Beijing's eyes owing to its relationship with Xinjiang."5

Huasheng Zhao, writing in 2007, argued that China's economic interests in Central Asia are insignificant in terms of explaining Chinese interest in the region, while its role in guaranteeing the stability and economic development of Xinjiang and thus the territorial integrity of China is essential.6 Furthermore, he says that the logic behind the Chinese presence in Central Asia is inherently led by domestic pressures, particularly with regard to security needs.7 Prominent Kazakhstani sinologist Konstantin Syroyezhkin says that Central Asia is seen by China as a "strategic rear," since the problems that take place in the region have significant impact on one of China's Achilles' heels: Xinjiang.8 As Stephen Blank emphasizes:

Xinjiang, like Taiwan and neighboring Tibet, is a neuralgic issue for China, which desperately needs internal stability in that predominantly Muslim, resource-rich and strategically important region. Beijing's strategic and energy objectives are based on stability in Xinjiang, and its Central Asian policies grow out of its preoccupation with stability there.9

Although a study of the centuries-long historical, cultural, and ethnic ties between Central Asia and Xinjiang is of interest in itself,10 the emphasis that China places on Xinjiang with regard to its policy in Central Asia is a significant topic of study, as it highlights a number of characteristics and concerns of contemporary Chinese strategic thinking and strategic culture. China's promotion of the idea of the "three evils" identified by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)-terrorism, extremism, and separatism-gives insights into China's priorities in the region.

This article is an exploration of the place of Xinjiang in China's foreign policy toward Central Asia. It does not ask the question of what are China's overall interests in Central Asia, and does not doubt that there are multiple Chinese interests in this region over and above its concerns with stability in Xinjiang. …

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